Herbs have been known and used for their healing powers for centuries. The next time you pop a piece of licorice in your mouth, consider that you’ve just joined forces with one of the earliest culture on earth. The Sumerians (one of the world’s first civilizations) were very familiar with medical herbs such as licorice and thyme, according to ancient clay tablets that date around 4000 BC.

A Chinese text called the Pen Tsao, which dates to 3000 BC, contained some 1,000 herbal formulas which had likely been around for thousands of juniper and garlic were known and used since 4000 BC. Egyptians also knew about the wonderful properties of chamomile. Women like Cleopatra crushed the petals of the flower to beautify and protect their skin harsh dry weather. These ancient cultures depended on herbs to maintain their health and beauty. What did they know that we don’t? Plenty!

Traditionally, many cultures have used and still use herbs to effectively maintain health as well as to heal ailments as diverse as eye infections, stomach aches, impotence and headaches. In fact, one of the first things the Pilgrims did when they got off the boat in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1630 was to transplant the herbal seedlings they’d lovingly transported across the Atlantic. They also soon began to explore the native North American healing plants such as cascara sagrada and goldenseal, adding them to their repertoire.

The word botanical has encompassed many different things including roots, leaves, barks and berries. You’ll find the term herb and botanical are often used interchangeably. Today, herbs are generally defined as a plant, or part of a plant valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities.

Herbs contain nutrients that are often not found in any other foods we eat. While our ancestor used to consume herbs as part of their regular diet, we rarely find ourselves ‘chewing on a piece of bark’ – nor would we want to. Still, the nutrients found in botanicals are unique and of great value to our health. An herbal supplement is our modern day alternative.

Herbal medicine has now come out of the realm of folklore and underground into mainstream medical schools around the world where medicinal botanical properties are being studied and prescribed. India is one country leading the way. In emergency rooms in India, milk thistle is routinely used intravenously to preserve the liver function of patients suffering from alcohol poisoning or drug overdoses. This wonderful, non-toxic way of approaching medicine is something all countries should be doing. India is also the only country in the world where hypericum, the active ingredient in St. John’s Wort, is clinically approved for use and doctors prescribe more than 66 million doses annually for psychological complaints. German doctors prescribe St. John’s Wort about 20 times more often than Prozac, which is one of the most widely prescribed pharmaceutical antidepressants in North America

While countries such as China, Japan, Korea, France and Germany are prescribing herbal remedies for a wide variety of complaints, in North America, herbs are still being viewed with suspicion by the medical community and are often bypassed in favour of treating illnesses with either drugs or surgery.

Patients are beginning to question the wisdom of the modern approach to medicine involving drugs and surgery and request a less invasive method of maintaining and regaining health. The marketplace is already responding to these popular demands and herbal remedies are now widely available. They’re still not completely accepted though, particularly by the medical profession and the drug industry.

One problem is that herbal remedies are not as high profit as drugs. A drug can be patented which gives the manufacturing company exclusive rights to it while herbs are readily available to most consumers and are rarely patented. If a company invests millions of dollars in researching and proving the effects of a certain herb, another company, who hasn’t paid for the research, can put the herb on the market at a lower price. For the first company, it’s a losing proposition.

Since there are not large profits involved, herbal companies don’t court the doctors the way pharmaceutical companies do. The result is a bias toward treating illnesses with drugs rather than gently coaxing the body into healing itself with herbal remedies, or preventing illness in the first place.

While pharmaceuticals and modern medicine are definitely beneficial and required under certain circumstances, we seem to have invested far too much in trying to fix health problems, rather than in prevention. Our health-care system has become a crisis or chronic illness management system. When you consider the growing number of illness that are managed, such as cancer, asthma, heart condition, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, ect., rather than prevented, you realize that the modern health system is in big trouble.

Today, we seem to think it’s perfectly fine to take drugs for the rest of our lives that treat the symptoms rather than the cause of a disease. Unlike herbs, drugs not only cost a lot, they can extract a high cost from our bodies as well. Masking symptoms without addressing the root cause of an illness can be dangerous since symptoms are the body’s way of signaling to us that all is not well.

There is a different way of looking at health and wellness, called holistic healing that is attracting more attention. The premise behind holistic healing is basically that, under optimal nutritional and lifestyle conditions, your body has the ability to heal itself. If the body is under too much stress, holistic medicine incorporating herbs can help the body regain its balance so it can then do what it was designed to do – heal. A holistic approach to healing considers all aspects of life including nutritional intake, lifestyle, current health status, inherited weaknesses and emotional health. Many herbalists believe that mind, body and soul are interconnected and one part cannot be treated without considering the whole.

It seems modern medicine is recognizing this truth and coming full circle, back to its roots. The latest cancer and AIDS experimental trials involve stimulating and boosting the body’s immune system so that he body can heal itself! It’s not such a radical thought after all.